Opponent preview: Southern California Trojans

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This entry concludes our 12-part series, profiling Notre Dame’s 2010 opponents. Check out the rest of them with Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College, Pitt, Western Michigan, Navy, Tulsa, Utah, and Army. I will now rest my forearms and hands in a cold-tub until game time.

The Overview:

There is no bigger game for the Irish than the season’s finale against Southern Cal. So much has happen to the Trojans since the day they beat the Irish last October. A season that opened with a 6-1 record came crashing down, with the Trojans splitting their final six games and falling far from their longtime perch atop the Pac-10. Then the fateful offseason that ended the Trojan dynasty — Pete Carroll exited Troy for the riches of the NFL, just before the guillotine of the NCAA came down on the neck of the football program. Joining Carroll outside of Heritage Hall was athletic director Mike Garrett, but not before Garrett handpicked Tennessee coach and former Carroll protege Lane Kiffin, who brought with him a staff filed with former Trojan coaches to replicate the previous regime. While the coaching staff is vintage Troy, the philosophy officially changed when new USC president Max Nikias forced Garrett into retirement and named former NBC announcer and one-time Trojan quarterback Pat Haden athletic director, and returned Reggie Bush’s Heisman Trophy.

The Trojan team the Irish face this year returns the most talent of any team on the schedule, but face a razor-thin margin for error, with their roster depleted to 57 players and a depth chart that’s scarily thin at multiple positions, including the offensive line. Still, it’s no secret that USC has owned Notre Dame of late, and the team the Irish will face in late November could be a scary team with nothing to lose, or a team ravaged by injury with little left to play for.   

Last time against the Irish:

With 13 minutes left in the game, the Irish trailed the Trojans by 20 points, and all the talk of Notre Dame being “back” was over. But once again, Notre Dame’s offense rose to the occasion, and behind Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate the Irish mounted a furious comeback. Playing without Michael Floyd (who dressed for the game), the Irish marched down the field in the games final seconds, and with one second left on the clock, Notre Dame had the ball on the Trojan four-yard line, and trailed by seven. Clausen had two options with the Trojans doubling-teaming Golden Tate, Duval Karama on the out-cut and Kyle Rudolph running the in-route behind him. He chose Kamara, who slipped, and the ball sailed to the turf, and the Irish’s fourth attempt to score from inside the ten yard was their last.

The Irish defense was again a major culprit, with the Trojans racking up 501 yards, and freshman quarterback Matt Barkley hitting wide open receivers for 380 yards, including 100 yard days by both tight end Anthony McCoy and wide receiver Damian Williams. Gary Gray came up with a clutch fourth quarter interception, but the Trojans’ first three drives of the second half all ended in touchdowns, and it was just too much for Charlie Weis’ squad to overcome. 

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 opponents the Irish face this year, I rank USC the toughest game on the schedule.

      1. Southern California Trojans
      2. Utah Utes
      3. Boston College Eagles
      4. Michigan Wolverines
      5. Michigan State Spartans
      6. Pitt Panthers
      7. Stanford Cardinal
      8. Purdue Boilermakers
      9. Navy Midshipmen
      10. Tulsa Golden Hurricanes
      11. Army Black Knights
      12. Western Michigan Broncos

Let’s make no mistake, the final two games on the Trojan schedule are their bowl games. If USC can beat Notre Dame on Thanksgiving weekend then beat USC UCLA at the Rose Bowl, the sting of sitting out bowl season won’t be anywhere near as harsh.

The Match-up:

Matt Barkley is back leading the Trojan offense, building off an impressive rookie campaign. He’ll lose primary target Damian Williams and tight end Anthony McCoy, but the receiving corp is littered with blue-chip talent like Brice Butler and Ronald Johnson. As usual, there will be plenty of running backs to chose from, with Allen Bradford and C.J. Gable getting the first crack and freshman phenom Dillon Baxter likely ready to contribute after a disciplinary suspension. The Trojans also have All-American fullback Stanley Havili sitting out the opener for a fight with a teammate, but he’ll be a versatile weapon at fullback. The offense will sink or swim on the play of the offensive line. There is talent there, but the depth is downright scary. Injuries could force USC to improvise, and there isn’t much room to freestyle with the current roster.

Defensively the Trojans should be an improved unit from last year, especially with the infusion of Monte Kiffin to coach. Defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron also has a reputation for getting the most out of his defensive line, and if he can keep guys like Nick Perry, Armond Armstead and Jurrell Casey healthy, this will be the strength of the defense. The linebackers have great depth, though they lack the top-end talent that’s been a staple of the Trojan ‘backers before them. The secondary needs to replace all four starters, though Shareece Wright is back after sitting out last season with off-the-field problems.

How the Irish will win:

Defensively, the Irish will find a way to win the line of scrimmage, and the offensive line the Trojans are starting is one of their weakest since the start of the Pete Carroll era. With the ability to get pressure on Barkley with four or five guys, the secondary can contain the big play and the mobile linebacking corp can stop a USC running game that lacks the star-power of the past. Offensively, the spread offense has given Pete Carroll and the Trojans fits, and they’ll be running the same defense under Orgeron and Kiffin, so expect the Irish to move the ball better than they have in the past. Even the strong defensive line won’t be as quick to rush the passer with Dayne Crist sitting five yards deep and getting the ball out of his hands quickly. Play a clean game and keep the turnovers and penalities in check, and the Irish will finally take down the Trojans, although one year too late to do it against Carroll.

How the Irish will lose:

It isn’t hard to figure out how the Trojans beat the Irish. They’ve done it the past eight years, each time a bit different than the others. There’s plenty of skill on the Troja
n roster and the front-four
of USC could be a mismatch with the Irish offensive line. Matt Barkley has already been called the “next one” for the Trojans, and if a few offensive weapons emerge, they could become an explosive offensive team. If you throw out last season, the Trojans always seem to play their best football down the stretch, and with the Irish coming to town for the last game of the year in the Coliseum, you know the Trojans will be ready to fight.

Gut Feeling:

This game depends on what USC team walks out of the tunnel. If it’s the motivated, chip-on-their-shoulders Trojans, then it’s a coin-flip game where the Trojans will likely — and rightly — be favored. But if the last year showed us anything, between the cracked veneer of the Carroll era and the NCAA sanctions, this program is starting back at zero. It’s hard to predict what type of program the Trojans will be under Lane Kiffin, just like it’s difficult to tell what the Irish will turn out to be under Brian Kelly. The best part is, we’ll find out in a few days…

 

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Duke

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Anthony Nash #83 of the Duke Blue Devils runs for a touchdown during the second half of a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s move was emphatic. Brian VanGorder’s departure confirms that a 1-3 record is unacceptable. And the demise of this team was as swift as the departure of a colleague Brian Kelly has known for the bulk of his 25-plus year coaching career.

But that’s the job. And the move likely wasn’t easy for a head coach who saw himself as close to tenured as any man this side of Lou Holtz had been, and is now clearly in uncharted territory.

“I’m under review, as well,” Kelly acknowledged on Sunday afternoon. “We’re all in this together: All the players, coaches, everybody. So players’ jobs are on the line. Every job is being evaluated as the players. All coaches’ jobs are on the line as well.”

With Greg Hudson now directing the defense, and Syracuse having run more offensive plays than every program but three, the challenge this weekend is stark. So let’s move forward ourselves and finish off the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter WilliamsBrian Kelly gave him credit, so let’s start there. Williams ran hard, looked explosive and flashed on special teams.

It’s time for Williams to get some more reps, even if it means taking away from Josh Adams’ leading load as well as Tarean Folston‘s.

 

Donte Vaughn. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback wasn’t perfect—he got beat inside a few times on slant routes that everybody in the building saw coming. But he came up big and made a play, something Notre Dame’s defensive backs haven’t done since Shaun Crawford went down for the season.

His length and cover skills should be put to the test again next weekend when Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo looks to replicate his monster 270-yard performance against UConn. The focus will be on Cole Luke, Vaughn, Julian Love and Nick Coleman.

 

Kevin Stepherson. The freshman only caught three balls, but all of them were big gainers,  including his beautiful 44-yard touchdown catch. With Torii Hunter unable to push the lid off opponents, Stepherson might be a better fit for the X moving forward, assuming he continues to learn the playbook and run precise routes.

 

The Weather. Looked like a heckuva day in South Bend, at least from a weather perspective.

 

THE BAD

The tackling. That was one of the worst tackling performances I can remember. Especially against a team that was anemic on offense heading into the weekend. Name a defender and you’ll recall a missed tackle.

Drue Tranquill held on to a few early, then had some ugly whiffs. Cole Luke, a guy Brian Kelly called the team’s smartest football player last week, sure looked lost a few times, too. And with hopes that Devin Studstill is the answer at free safety, Studstill did his best to make us wonder about that, too. He took some horrific routes to footballs, a difficult day at the office for a young kid who needs to learn quickly.

When your senior captain outside linebacker is getting run over by a quarterback for a first down and you’re thinking, “at least he made the tackle,” the bar has been lowered pretty significantly. But another week of “thudding” at practice might be needed—even with heavy installation coming soon.

 

The special teams. A missed field goal proved costly. So did some horrific tackling and coverage on the kickoff return that let Duke back into the game. And for the fourth time this season, Tyler Newsome flubbed his first kick of the game. (All but asking for the nickname Mulligan to emerge.)

Scott Booker has a ton of kids on his run teams. But they’ve got to get some consistency out there if they want CJ Sanders to help turn this into a positive, not another unit to hide.

 

The pass rush. Yes, the drought is over, with Nyles Morgan getting the first sack of the season for the Irish. But man—this team has a gigantic hole on it and finding any type of pass rush is critical.

Sure, Duke’s quick passing game took advantage of the Irish’s leaky secondary and didn’t let Notre Dame get to the quarterback. But at this point, every snap you’re giving Andrew Trumbetti over a kid who can get to the quarterback—Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, or anyone—feels lost.

 

The coaching. Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said the following, when asked about an evaluation of his defensive coaching and game plan.

“That’s probably the one area that I feel better about today. We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today,” Kelly said.

That was likely a time-buyer until a long night of thinking, because morning brought clarity for the head man.

 

THE UGLY

The State of the Program. With the game tied 28-28 heading into the fourth quarter, one team was jumping around like they’d won the lotto. The other was all but biting their fingernails, kicking dirty and looking lethargic.

If anything set off Kelly postgame—even more so than the defense his troops were displaying—it was the lack of effort.

“There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth,” Kelly said. “You’re playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it’s work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.

“There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s where we got to go.”

In Kelly’s first few seasons in South Bend, he was criticized for having his team celebrate victories, even the ugly ones. But somewhere this program lost track of the ultimate goal and that likely falls on the head coach to fix that problem as soon as possible.

 

Firing a staffer. Notre Dame’s head coach likely saw what many of us saw as well. But a decision like that from the cheap-seats is one thing, a decision from inside the program is another.

Follow Notre Dame long enough, and you’ll tire of thinking about the carousel that’s come and gone—Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis, armies of loyal assistants who have spent years working to climb the summit. And for most, life after Notre Dame isn’t the same.

Sure, there’s Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong. But there are a few dozen others who have come to a program with noble ambitions—willing to do it right and win on and off the field—but they fail too often on Saturdays.

So as ND Nation almost united in celebration of the move, it’s worth a quick word to a fanbase that always fashions itself as possessing proper etiquette.

Few come to your office and celebrate the worst day of your professional career. Less dig into your family’s Twitter account, hoping to break a story or confirm news they celebrate jubilantly. Sure, some of that comes with the territory. And certainly VanGorder was well compensated for his time in South Bend.

But ultimately, this Sunday hopefully provided some perspective. Baseball lost one of its brightest young stars. Golf lost one of its icons. And many many more things of consequence took place—inside the sporting world and out.

But when it comes to VanGorder, a quick reminder of something that has nothing to do with sports. A man has lost his job. A family will uproot once again. And the dynamics on the current football team—where Montgomery VanGorder still plays an important role—won’t ever be the same.

“I will tell you this: Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there. He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn’t working.”

There should be no harm in that.

VanGorder out as defensive coordinator

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)
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Brian VanGorder has been fired. Notre Dame’s third-year defensive coordinator was relieved of his duties after just four games.

Brian Kelly made the move official Sunday morning, less than an hour before his weekly Sunday teleconference. He’s replaced VanGorder with defensive analyst Greg Hudson, a former Notre Dame linebacker who joined the Irish staff in June and spent the last three seasons as defensive coordinator at Purdue, a position he also held at East Carolina and Minnesota. The rest of the defensive staff remains unchanged.

“Obviously, this is a difficult day for our coaching staff, but I’m excited and honored about the opportunity that Coach Kelly has afforded me,” Hudson said in the team’s statement. “We’ve got to improve on defense, without a doubt, and I’m confident that we will. We have great student-athletes and a tremendous defensive coaching staff. I can’t wait to get started with our group.”

The VanGorder era ends with the Irish ranked 101st in scoring defense, 96th in rushing defense and 87th in pass defense. The Irish are dead last in sacks, the last FBS team to get one when Nyles Morgan finally got the team’s first sack against Duke.

Hired after Bob Diaco left Notre Dame for the head job at UConn, VanGorder brought with him an NFL system and a multiple, attacking scheme. But after injuries derailed his first season, it was a defense best known for its maddening inconsistency, with even last season’s talented outfit plagued by the big play and mistakes.

As late as Saturday night Kelly pledged allegiance to his defensive coordinator, calling the staff’s game plan the least of his concerns after the 38-35 loss.

“We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective,” Kelly said.